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Fake It Till You Make It: The E-Commerce Holidays Retail Created and Crushed

By Deanna Avi Madigan, Erica Ramirez, Liz Curtis & Melissa Feemster

Were you there when Cyber Monday was created? We laughed a bit at the name. Not anymore! Prime Day? A slow start that now owns the month of July. Under their breath or at the water cooler, team members might call them “fake holidays” but they represent real money for our industry.


At the dawn of e-commerce, retailers focused on repeating what had historically worked for brick and mortar sale events such as Black Friday, Day After Christmas, and U.S. bank holidays; the holidays that gave shoppers a day off to rise at 4 a.m., brave the crowds and catch the deals. While these promotional days remain an important aspect of annual retail plans, much has changed since the eras that brought doorbuster frenzies for Tickle Me Elmo.


It all began in 2005 when the National Retail Federation dreamed up Cyber Monday, the first ever digital-exclusive holiday targeted to the growing segment of active online consumers returning to their desks with a tryptophan hangover. The retail holiday offered this captive audience a chance to knock out their gift list in private, using the company’s fast internet (when the boss’s back was turned) and take advantage of deep discounts offered by online retailers.


A Shop.org press release from November 28, 2005 announced, “'Cyber Monday' Quickly Becoming One of the Biggest Online Shopping Days of the Year" and they were not wrong. The post-Thanksgiving event has since become the largest e-commerce shopping day of the year. Today, this success combined with the power of Black Friday has evolved to a multi-day stretch of sales events known as Cyber Week running Thanksgiving Eve to Cyber Monday and grossing an Internet Retailer estimated $22.55 billion in online sales last year.


Inspired by the performance of Cyber Monday a slew of other e-commerce holidays soon came to fruition. Industry pioneer eBay coined the December event Green Monday in 2007. Next came Giving Tuesday which has quickly grown from a global day of giving to a holiday that retailers leverage to highlight their philanthropic side while driving sales. Soon came Super Saturday, the holiday of procrastinators, offering last minute deals and express shipping discounts just before Christmas.


Officially changing the game for retail holidays was the arrival of Amazon’s Prime Day in 2015. The retail powerhouse flexed their economic clout and created an e-commerce event all their own. This mid-summer shopping bonanza ended up as the third largest U.S. online shopping holiday in 2018, just behind Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

The sudden growth of Prime Day has the marketplace scrambling to compete. Based on RetailMeNot’s reports, 300 retailers ran counter promotions this year, up from only 7 in 2015. While Amazon’s estimated sales results are staggering there is certainly a reason for retailers to pay to play. Adobe Analytics reported that large rival retailers such as Walmart, Target, Macy’s and eBay saw an average 68% sales increase in line with competitive promotions, media buys and marketing tactics. The cheekiest of them all was eBay’s ‘Crash Sale’ that poked fun at Amazon’s 2018 Prime Day technical glitch. Niche retailers also saw a significant lift of 28% from their less competitive but value-driven offers paired with strategic marketing placements.


Growth of these shopping holidays has not been limited to the U.S. online landscape. The spread of Black Friday & Cyber Monday goes beyond countries that celebrate Thanksgiving and has slowly grown to an international shopping weekend. Recently imported to U.S. retailers is China’s enormous Single’s Day event. Last year the holiday drove more in reported sales on Chinese retail superpower Alibaba than all of U.S. Cyber Week sales across all retailers combined. With a growing focus on global e-commerce, especially in the APAC region, Western brands including the Outnet, L’Occitane, Urban Outfitters and H&M launched Singles Day promotions of their own, resulting in a 68% U.S. online sales increase in 2017 according to Marketing Land contributor Shani Rosenfelder.


What was once an eyeroll-inducing retail trend is today a major economic force. These promotions now garner large portions of marketing budgets, generate billions in annual revenue and have driven the exponential growth of the performance marketing industry. Based on the evolution of these events in the past 20-plus years, the only guarantee is that they will continue to expand and likely shift their share of holiday sales in years to come. Our advice is to always test new ideas, as the data changes every year, and what worked before might not again. Ask all of your partners for research about key holidays and what they see working in the market. That’s right – stay curious!!


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